Dreams are hallucinations that occur during certain stages of sleep. They’re strongest during REM sleep, or the rapid eye movement stage, when you may be less likely to recall your dream. Much is known about the role of sleep in regulating our metabolism, blood pressure, brain function, and other aspects of health. But it’s been harder for researchers to explain the role of dreams.
When you’re awake, your thoughts have a certain logic to them. When you sleep, your brain is still active, but your thoughts or dreams often make little or no sense. This may be because the emotional centers of the brain trigger dreams, rather than the logical regions.
Though there’s no definitive proof, dreams are usually autobiographical thoughts based on your recent activities, conversations, or other issues in your life. However, there are some popular theories on the role of dreams.
Researchers still don’t entirely agree on the purpose of dreams. There are, however, some widely held beliefs and theories.
Dreams as therapists
Your dreams may be ways of confronting emotional dramas in your life. And because your brain is operating at a much more emotional level than when you’re awake, your brain may make connections regarding your feelings that your conscious self wouldn’t make.
Dreams as fight-or-flight training
One of the areas of the brain that’s most active during dreaming is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with the survival instinct and the fight-or-flight response.
One theory suggests that because the amygdala is more active during sleep than in your waking life, it may be the brain’s way of getting you ready to deal with a threat.
Fortunately, the brainstem sends out nerve signals during REM sleep that relax your muscles. That way you don’t try to run or punch in your sleep.
Dreams as your muse
One theory for why we dream is that it helps facilitate our creative tendencies. Artists of all kinds credit dreams with inspiring some of their most creative work. You may have awakened at times in your life with a great idea for a movie or a song, too.
Without the logic filter you might normally use in your waking life that can restrict your creative flow, your thoughts and ideas have no restrictions when you’re sleeping.
Dreams as memory aides
One widely held theory about the purpose of dreams is that they help you store important memories and things you’ve learned, get rid of unimportant memories, and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings.
How dreams affect memory storage and recall isn’t clearly understood yet. But dreams may help the brain more efficiently store important information while blocking out stimuli that could interfere with memory and learning.